College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities; Community, Engagement, Belonging and Access; Research

Thomas earns major NEH grant for exhibition about African American history in and around Clemson


Rhondda Robison Thomas stands against the backdrop of a preview of her exhibition in the R.M. Cooper Library.
Rhondda Robinson Thomas stands in front of a preview of her future exhibition, “Call My Name: The Black Experience in the South Carolina Upstate from Enslavement to Desegregation.” The three-panel preview is in the R.M. Cooper Library. Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a $400,000 grant to Clemson University English professors Rhondda Robinson Thomas and Lee Morrissey to support a touring exhibition of Thomas’ research, “Call My Name: The Black Experience in the South Carolina Upstate from Enslavement to Desegregation.”

The exhibition, which is being developed by Thomas and several academic and community partners, will trace African American history in the greater Clemson area from the antebellum era to the 21st century.

“This National Endowment for the Humanities grant is an affirmation of all the hard work that has been put into this project, not just for me but for all of our community partners,” said Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature.

“This is the culmination of a 13-year journey, and I’m humbled and excited to be able to share Clemson’s story with a much broader audience,” she said.

Morrissey, the assistant project director and co-principal investigator for the NEH grant, has been a longtime supporter of Thomas’ research, as a past chair of the English department and as founding director of the Humanities Hub at Clemson.

Together, the two professors have reached out to neighboring African American communities and fostered relationships with civic leaders and cultural institutions.

“This story has always been here to tell,” Morrissey said. “This exhibition is about making these stories visible, these lives visible.”

History on display

The interactive exhibition is an extension of Thomas’ “Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History” initiative, which has digitized more than 2,000 primary documents related to Clemson history, including slave inventories, prisoner records, labor contracts, photographs and correspondence.

Before touring to museums and other institutions in several states, the exhibition will be presented first on the Clemson campus. Plans call for the project to be completed by February of 2022, although COVID-19 could postpone its opening.

Several museums in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia have expressed interest in hosting “Call My Name.”

“A lot of thought will go into exactly what travels well and what can fit into 2,000 feet of space that might be configured differently at different sites,” Thomas said.

The exhibition will feature the multigenerational stories of enslaved African Americans and also the Black sharecroppers and prison laborers who once worked on the land where Clemson University now stands. Clemson is one of the few universities in the nation to be built directly on a former plantation, Thomas said.

Thomas’ research has also carried that narrative into the 21st century, focusing on the descendants of the African Americans who helped build Clemson.

The grant awarded to Thomas and Morrissey is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Public Humanities program, which supports projects that bring the ideas and insights of the humanities to life for general audiences through in-person programming.

A wealth of materials

The exhibition will feature an array of materials and media: photographs, texts, display panels, interactive maps, music, documentary films and interview videos. Also included will be a replica of the stone quarters for the enslaved fieldhands who worked John C. Calhoun’s plantation. In addition, a front porch, a prominent feature of southern life, will invite visitors to sit and discuss the exhibition.

The history of African American activism at Clemson also is touched upon in the exhibition. “We found that since 1825 there has been at least one protest in every generation where Black people were fighting for their rights and equality,” Thomas said.

A timeline will link incidents in Clemson’s history with events in South Carolina, the nation and the world.

Thomas and her partners on the project developed a small-scale portion of the exhibition, which was on display in the R.M. Cooper Library at Clemson University in the spring before the library’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition should be available for public viewing when the library reopens.

Humanities for the public

In conjunction with the touring exhibition, the organizers will develop a school curriculum for student visitors. An online version of the project will be created as well.

Thomas said project leaders hope to raise another $240,000 to support the exhibition.

Thomas joined the Clemson faculty in 2007 and was named the Lemon Professor of Literature in 2018. She received a Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship for an earlier exhibition, “Black Clemson: From Enslavement to Integration.”

Thomas earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland, master’s degrees in literature from the University of New Hampshire and in journalism from the University of Georgia. She received her undergraduate degree in communication/media journalism at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University).

The National Endowment for the Humanities is considered among the most prestigious and influential granting agencies for the humanities in the United States.

Thomas and Morrissey credit the entire project team for helping to secure the NEH grant. Academic partners include Brenda L. Burk (archival specialist), director of special collections and archives and associate librarian at Clemson University Libraries; Cameron Bushnell (publicity coordinator), associate professor of English and director of the Pearce Center for Professional Communication at Clemson; and Dana Thorpe (logistics specialist), chief executive officer of the Upcountry History Museum–Furman University.

Consulting humanities scholars include Clemson professors Susanna Ashton, chair of the Department of English; Vernon Burton, professor of history; and Kendra Johnson, associate professor of theatre; in addition to Jody L. Allen, assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary; Carmen Harris, professor of history at the  University of South Carolina Upstate; Cecelia Moore, emeritus university historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Lynn Rainville, director of institutional history at Washington and Lee University.

Community consultants are Shelby Henderson (educational resources coordinator), manager of the Bertha Lee Strickland Cultural Museum in Seneca, South Carolina and Nick McKinney (curator/creative director), director of the Lunney Museum, also in Seneca.

“Call My Name: The Black Experience in the South Carolina Upstate from Enslavement to Desegregation” has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency created in 1965. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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